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Teaching adults to read

By Ulli Diemer

Seven News, April 4, 1984


We don’t think of it as a Canadian problem. Illiteracy is something we associate with distant Third World countries too desperately poor to provide schools for their populations. Not Canada.

But the reality is that in Ontario alone there are over one million adults who are “functionally illiterate” — adults whose lack of reading skills create serious problems for them, people who have trouble reading a newspaper.

Many of them are older, people who perhaps missed out on schooling because of the Depression. Many come from the poorer, especially rural, parts of Canada. Some are immigrants who can speak and understand English but can’t read and write. And many are simply products of our educational system who pass out of the system each year, after 10 or more years of schooling, still illiterate.

In Ward 7 alone, the. 1976 census found 12,225 functionally illiterate adults. East End Literacy, a local group that works with adults to help them become literate, estimates that half of the students taking part in its program begin at such a basic level that they cannot read a street sign.

The problems they face are daunting and never-ending. Job applications, their childrens’ report cards, directions on bottles of medication, ballots in the voting booth are all indecipherable. It becomes impossible to obtain a driver’s license, to buy a birthday card, to read one’s child a bedtime story, to buy grocery products such as “No Frills” items that don’t feature a picture of the contents on the package.

The ways of coping are often ingenious, ranging from “I’m sorry, I forgot my glasses” ploys to phenomenal feats of memory whereby everything from prices to shapes of containers to colours of subway stations are memorized. Sometimes illiteracy is successfully hidden from employers, friends, and the world at large.

But much more frequently the result is poverty, unemployment, and the inability to participate in or enjoy many of society’s most basic activities. And there is often a feeling of shame and failure, a debilitating loss of self-respect, a lack of belief in one’s own abilities and potential. One is acutely aware of being dependent on the help of others in coping with a print-oriented society, and therefore of continually having to admit that one can’t read or write.

It is with these realities in mind that East End Literacy approaches the problem of helping adults to learn to read. A cornerstone of East End Literacy’s philosophy is the belief that becoming literate is an important way for people to gain more control and power over their lives.

Coupled with this is a stress on encouraging students to believe that they are capable, that they can learn, that they can win more control over their own lives. This also often involves understanding that it may well have been schools and other institutions which failed them, rather than it being they who are failures.

Workers at East End Literacy say that they often encounter students who were effectively victimized in some way: working class students who were glibly labelled as having a reading disability by a system that geared its curriculum and approach to middle-class culture; students with reading problems who received no individual attention and were allowed to slip further and further behind and were then shunted into dead-end programs where no real attempt at teaching was made.

East End Literacy’s approach to teaching (done by 60 volunteer tutors each working with one student) emphasizes using the lives of the students as the centre of the curriculum. This can mean that a student who wants to get a driver’s license will use the reading skills required for the driver’s examination as the focus, while a student who wants to be able to write letters home to her family in Jamaica will learn by talking about what she wants to say in a letter, having the tutor write it down, and then using that as a “text.”

In addition to one-on-one tutoring, East End Literacy also encourages students to get involved in group learning. One group meets to put out a quarterly magazine called The Writer’s Voice, which consists of writings by students. Students choose the topics for a particular issue — for example, being unemployed, or housing — discuss it, and write about it. The process strengthens reading and writing skills through focusing on something the students have decided is important, and also helps to build a feeling of being able to be creative. At the same time, students develop a sense that the experiences they have gone through, and what they have to say about them, are important.

When that happens, a sense of increased power and responsibility go hand in hand. One student, who knew she had gotten far less than a fair shake in school, expressed impatience mainly with herself, not with the system that had held her back. Her reason: “I’m the one that has to do something about it.”

También disponible en español: Enseñando a adultos a leer.

Published in Seven News, April 4, 1984
See also: Marguerite has come a long way.


Ulli Diemer
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